Well, that was a weird weekend. The optimism surrounding the Irish men’s senior team this year was more justified than ever before. Seems we maybe jumped the gun on that one, because Ireland slipped to an extremely unexpected defeat in their Six Nations opener. Maybe not unexpected in the result, but certainly in how it unfolded. Ireland were sluggish, blasé and in general did not deserve to come out with anything but a loss.
Scotland have been knocking on the door for some time now and you can’t help but wonder if any complacency did creep into the Irish side. There’s been some wins for the Scots over the last two decades or so, but in general if Ireland are in a good run of form heading into this fixture there is usually no question who the likely victor will be. Alas, Scotland have opened their Six Nations campaign with a win for the first time in a long time and Ireland already have huge ground to make up if they are to stand any chance of snatching the title this year.
I don’t want to dwell on the shortcomings of the Irish side exclusively when Scotland put in such a strong show themselves, but dear Lord that was shocking. All of the ruthlessness and composure seen last November was almost entirely absent in the first half. Ireland were just out and out asleep in defence at times, none more so than the absolutely disgraceful try walked in by Alex Dunbar. It’s pretty simple, if there’s an inside centre in the lineout, you should probably mark him. Sure, it might be a bluff, but the wide option can be covered by the rest of the backline. This moment perfectly encapsulated how off the pace Ireland were in that first half. Tackles were being missed, the attack was kitten soft and there was just no fluidity across the team. Some rustiness in a Six Nations opener is to be expected, but this was just simply not good enough for a team that is supposed to be the most experienced and accomplished Irish side in history. The blow this will have been to the confidence of the squad could be worrying, though the lack of any try bonus points over the opening weekend could be a small glimmer of hope in relation to Ireland’s title aspirations.
What about the Scottish though? They’ve had this level of performance come from them for two years now but rarely if ever have they managed to seal the deal. That all changed on Saturday, even with a massive lead eaten up by an improved Ireland in the second half, Scotland refused to count themselves out. That the winning score came from one of the few penalties Ireland conceded in their half was more than telling to the pressure Scotland applied. To be honest, Scotland mostly did to Ireland what the Irish team did the All Blacks last year. Like the All Blacks, Ireland were a little cold and the right pressure and intensity from Scotland forced them into growing much more scrappy and erratic as the game went on. Truly this was one of the finest performances out of our fellow Celts I’ve seen in recent years, tied only with their agonising defeat to Australia in the 2015 World Cup. They have the skill across their team, have now for some time, but what they finally managed on Saturday was to apply some smarts and experience to how they close out games. The way they shut down the Irish pack was somewhat spectacular too. Even with the Irish scrum making mincemeat of their pack, the Scottish forwards still managed to be an absolute nuisance around the rucks and reduced the already poor Irish lineout to being nearly totally ineffective. You would have to think that Scotland are still unlikely to take the title, given that they still are slightly lacking in squad depth and have and have two daunting trips to London and Paris ahead of them, but I’ll be damned if they wouldn’t be a good outside bet all the same.
Scotland 27 – 22 Ireland
In the other games of the weekend there wasn’t a whole lot in the line of surprises, save for France giving England a scare for a brief while. Needless to say Les Bleus played a little to type by the end, not maintaining the pressure and allowing England to snatch the victory, though one could argue that England do look more vulnerable than expected. Italy and Wales showed very little in their Sunday fixture, with Italy looking exciting if not just a little pedestrian in the first half before an all too familiar second half drop off saw Wales pull away with oodles to spare. Neither team look likely to threaten any side all that much based on this first game though and it has to be said that on form, Scotland easily look the most threatening side in the tournament so far.